Weird Helsinki, In Pictures

Here’s one of my favourite photographs I’ve taken in Helsinki. A rather whimsical entrance tunnel to the Rautatientori (central station) metro. Note the ‘cave paintings’.

Speaking of whimsical, here’s a little kiosk in a city centre park where we bought coffee.

And this… Well this goes beyond whimsy into the nightmarishly strange. In the background here, Helsinki cathedral. In the foreground, something I bought in its gift shop. Emo ice cream. A Gothic lolly.

This is licorice flavoured. Salty Nordic licorice flavoured. NO ICE CREAM SHOULD TASTE OF SALTY LICORICE! It was the most nausea-inducing thing I actually managed to eat since I had sea urchin in an all-you-can-eat Las Vegas sushi bar.

Oh yeah – and inside it’s grey. ASH GREY.

Excuse me a minute.

Belle's Hell

We’re talking about Finnish engineering, so here’s a picture of Helsinki’s central metro station

All right, I’ve been in Finland for well over a week and so far I’ve avoided the N-word. The time has come, we have to face up to this.

Nokia – are they completely buggered?

You wouldn’t think so to look around here. There are Nokias everywhere. After that, the iPhone and maybe Blackberries. Though Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S III is being advertised on every vertical surface, I haven’t seen one in the wild – don’t see many Android phones at all.

Well, why use an imitation of the iPhone when you have the thing the iPhone imitated? Nokia were making smartphones years before Apple after all. And even today their Symbian operating system is in many ways…

No, I can’t do it. Much as I like the company, much as I like Finland, much as Symbian was once a really great operating system for smartphones, Nokia lost it there. It might have been said a year or so ago that they were at a crossroads. Today, it would be charitable to say they’re on a roundabout. Nokia now make phones with five different operating systems.

There’s Maemo/MeeGo. OK, that one we can pretty much write off as a noble experiment. There are S30 and S40, the systems for low- and mid-price phones respectively. There’s Windows Phone, the one Nokia is betting on to restore it to the leading edge of phone technology. And then, we have Symbian.

Poor Symbian.

Well actually we don’t, not anymore. The company clearly considers the name a liability, so Symbian^3 Anna (releases now have girls’ names) was superseded earlier this year by what’s known simply as Nokia Belle.

I just upgraded a friend’s phone to this latest (last?) iteration of the world’s first real smartphone OS. Aside from it coming with free Angry Birds, we hoped that it would be nicer to use than Anna. Despite being a Finn, my friend had never had a Symbian phone before and she thoroughly disliked it. Compared to her previous S60 one it just seemed needlessly complex.

An assessment I agree with – I’ve never understood why they felt that the controls had to be buried in folders within folders, divided into often confusing categories. You can spend ages on a Symbian phone trying to find how to change the ring tone, on the way passing all sorts of settings and features you never knew you needed – because you probably don’t. A little adventure really, but it also speaks volumes about the strengths and weaknesses of Symbian. It is incredibly mature, and over its twenty-odd years of development – if you trace back to its origins on the PDAs made by British company Psion – has accumulated a huge range of capabilities. But also, much now-unnecessary complexity.

For what it’s worth, Belle is an improvement. What Nokia have done – showing signs of desperation – is make it look and work a lot more like Android, even copying the ‘tray’ that slides down to display notifications and major settings. Gone are the layers of folders. But for people like my friend who upgrade to Belle it just makes the unfamiliar even more unfamiliar. And for new buyers, a resemblance to Android is hardly enough. If Symbian had been as close as this a couple of years ago, it might now have the momentum to rival Android for apps. But it appears inevitable that it will be phased out completely in the next couple of years – not just in name.

So is there any reason to choose a Symbian/Belle phone now?

Yes. The fact that it was designed from the start for the limited hardware of portable devices – indeed, the far more limited hardware of an earlier generation – means that to this day nothing can compete with a Symbian phone in terms of battery life. Plus it runs far better on low-end hardware than Android does. So if you need smartphone functionality and you don’t want to pay very much, seriously consider a cheap Nokia smartphone over a cheap Android such as Samsung’s dreadful Galaxy Y. In the year or two you might have it, that could add up to a couple of hundred fewer times you need to find a charger.

It’s sad perhaps that they won’t be keeping Symbian on just to fight that corner, but now is the time for Nokia to concentrate. They have S40 for good cheap “dumb” phones and, in Windows Phone 8, a smartphone OS that looks like it genuinely can compete with Apple and Google. Nokia I think will be all right – indeed, great again one day. It’s just sad that they have to sacrifice so much independence, and so much history.

Sayonara, Symbian.

And here’s a Finnish bridge

Galaxy Note With Ice Cream Sandwich 2

Some Screenshots:

Multitasking, something of an afterthought until now, becomes integral in Android 4 (Ice Cream Sandwich). Hold the home button and every app you’ve used recently is there waiting to take up from where you left off. Well I say recently; presumably it’s limited by available memory, but it seems able to hold dozens.

That “Deck of Cards” view in Google Chrome Beta for mobile, allowing you to flick through your open tabs. This is a really good idea.

Another feature of the new Chrome browser – preview of search results. Touch a small magnifying glass icon in the results and screenshots are spread out for you. It’s remarkably fast too.


In short, I love this browser! It’s not perfect yet; it crashed once, and it took me a while to coax it into allowing me to upload those screenshots. (Tip: Zoom out. When screen is magnified, WordPress can get confused about which link you’re pressing.) But I created this post using it exclusively, a real-world challenge involving complex JavaScript-heavy pages and devilish floating input panels. The only mobile browser to even barely pass before this was Nokia’s MicroB, which is essentially desktop Firefox for Linux in a mobile guise. To finally surpass this is high praise indeed – and an indictment of other mobile browsers when you consider that they’re still behind a standard Nokia set three years ago.

Anyway, the take-home here is that mobile browsing finally works right. Well done, Google.

The Missing Kies

More Non-Fun With Samsung. It is amazing that a company rumoured to be the world’s No.1 phone maker can provide their customers with synchronisation software as enjoyable to use as being punched repeatedly in the face. Samsung Kies is slow, unstable, and just ill-conceived.

I decided to give it a thorough troubleshooting today, by removing anything on the computer that might have even a remote chance of interfering with it. My old Nokia syncing software, the crap that Apple piles on when you install Safari or iTunes – anything that might use Media Transfer Protocol basically – before removing and reinstalling Kies. It was a long shot, but it seemed to do some good. At least it will show thumbnails of photos now. That’s… something.

But I must confess – I discovered eventually that Kies wasn’t really failing to accomplish a basic task as I’d thought. It simply doesn’t do that task. Foolish me. Why would I think that a function with a name like “Sync Photos” would sync photos? My naïveté just appals me sometimes.

You see I wanted it to copy the pictures I’d taken with the phone and save them to the computer. On most parts of planet Earth that would mean creating a folder on your computer that always contains the same photographs as the phone. In, as we call it, sync.

For Samsung’s Kies however, syncing photos means copying them from the computer, to the phone. Because that’s what you want to do, isn’t it? Un-backup your pictures. Samsung it seems are so pleased with their phones that they think we’ll want to put all our photos on them, to show them off to their best advantage.

More seriously, they’re envisaging the phone as your central device, your hub. Things move to the phone, not away. All nice in theory, but complete crap in practice. The reality is that both for the sake of convenience and of  backing-up, you want the same files on both your phone and your computer. Synchronisation, as the name suggests, should be a two-way street.

(The cloud? If you have an Android phone you may have found it automatically uploading your photos to your Google account. The way of the future, right. The problem with the cloud is it’s altogether too nebulous. I’m not at all happy entrusting every picture I take to someone who mysteriously doesn’t even want paying for the service.)

So Kies won’t copy my pictures to the computer as a part of an automated syncing process. I have to do it manually. Which means I have to remember to do it manually. This is not good enough. All I want, ideally, is software that will copy my photographs. As well as synchronise any new contact info and events with my computer’s address book and calendar. Maybe copy over other important data too, like sketches I make on it. In the other direction, possibly copy any newly-downloaded podcasts to the phone so that I can listen to them on the move. And it would be nice if it could do that all automatically when I plugged my phone into the computer to charge. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

Nope, not thanks to the Austrian guy who developed MyPhoneExplorer. This is everything that Kies should be but isn’t. On top of that it has some interesting features that Kies doesn’t think to include, like the facility to use your phone from your computer when it’s connected, making and taking calls and even typing texts on your keyboard. Plus it can archive your text messages, or indeed keep any data or application on the phone backed up.

It may take some time to set up – read the very useful help pages – but that’s because it can be made to do precisely what you want. And it’s free, though it does ask you to donate. You should. The amount of heartache it will save you is well worth a few euros. He has made life better.

Update: I should have mentioned that when installing it offers to give you a couple of other freeware programs. You can decline these though, and on principle I recommend that you do.

Works on most Android phones, not just Samsung’s, as well as Symbians from Sony Ericsson.

http://www.fjsoft.at/en/downloads.php

Kies To The Shitty

Samsung Kies

There can be little doubt that Samsung makes a fine phone. They make a few crappy ones too of course; a friend of mine has the Galaxy Y, which actually hurts slightly to look at. It is fair to say though that with the Galaxy S II, Nexus, and Note, they make three of the best phones you can buy.

But if one thing lets all of them down, it’s Kies. This is the software they provide for connecting their phones to computer, which you’d use for example to transfer music to the phone or photographs from it. Or, to synchronise the contacts on your phone and computer. That’s such a useful function that it’s one of the main reasons I use a smartphone. Having just one version of all your email addresses and phone numbers, kept in sync across all your devices, is heaven compared to the situation a few years ago when I had some addresses in one webmail account, some in another, some on the computer, some phone numbers on the SIM, some in phone memory, some more in another phone’s memory…

These are Android phones of course, so you can just do it the Google way and sync all your contacts with Gmail. Which is fine, but I don’t really want to put all my eggs into Google’s basket. Plus I use other email addresses as well.

So what I do is funnel all my email accounts into Microsoft Outlook. That not only gives me a way to gather all my contacts together, but allows me to read old Gmail and other webmail even when not online. (It’s simple enough to set up, and if you prefer you can use another email client like Thunderbird.) That makes it easy to ensure I don’t have multiple versions of the same contact with slightly different names, defunct numbers and so on. A bit of a pain, but so much better to do now than when you need to call someone. Then it’s usually a simple matter to sync the contacts in your phone with the ones in Outlook.

Unless you’re doing it with Samsung Kies, which takes bloody forever and fails almost incessantly. Time after time, the process would hang at 64% complete. Giving up and unplugging the phone, I find that it got stuck on one contact or another and copied it over and over and over again. Shit.

It can be hard, considering you’re syncing not just Outlook with your phone, but your phone with Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc., to pinpoint exactly where things are going awry. But it seems it came down to a few malformed address book entries knocking Kies for a loop. Things like a hyphen appearing at the start of a name field. I’m sorry Samsung, but that’s ridiculous.

I think I’ve combed these idiosyncrasies out by now (fingers crossed). It actually completes the sync anyway. Right now though it’s using almost half a Gig of memory just to display the contacts on my phone. It took forever to even reach this point, and now they are finally visible my computer is too constipated to let me scroll through them. Oh, and it also cannot transfer my audio and video files because I don’t have a sound card fitted at the moment. I don’t need to play them, or convert them, or run these media files in any way, just copy them from A to B. But because it can find no hardware, Kies won’t even acknowledge their existence.

And it takes forever to load, and it’s confusing to use, and it’s shockingly unresponsive. It is just a breathtakingly badly-designed piece of software. I used to think Nokia’s Ovi Suite was a bit of a mess. Ovi is a futuristic dream compared to this. It’s as if Samsung were so keen to outdo Apple that they even decided to make something more annoying than iTunes.

Samsung make great hardware, and the software actually on the phones seems to be excellent too, but Kies could really undermine your confidence.

I’ll get back to you when I figure out how to live without it.

The Phone That Should Have Been King

But boy, could it multitask. Sixteen apps running simultaneously on the N900’s task management screen. And sixteen is just the most you can show without scrolling. Like a PC, there is no upper limit except available memory.

Two years ago Nokia’s future was going to be Maemo, a cutting-edge operating system based on Linux with a sleek interface to replace the veteran Symbian OS. The phone that would bring it was the N900. This had the same processor as the rival iPhone 3GS, plus a much better screen and camera, neat slide-out keyboard, a kickstand and great stereo speakers for watching video, and even features the iPhone lacks to this day like real multitasking and a memory card slot.

As Nokia had been and was still the leading maker of smartphones, you might imagine a pent-up market of loyal customers gagging for a device that would show that upstart Apple. Yet when it arrived they stayed away in droves. The N900, very arguably the most advanced and capable phone yet made, was a magnificent, absolute, utter market failure.

What the hell went wrong? More than one thing, clearly. A phone with that much going for it could surely have survived one weakness, maybe even two or three, and still gone on to be a big seller.

Four though is pushing it.

Nokia N900, dial mode.
Not its best angle

The other week I showed it to an iPhone-using friend. She was interested, but asked – quite innocently – “Why is it so thick?” It’s true, it’s as thick as a brick. Downright chubby. Though its other dimensions are almost identical to the iPhone 3GS, it’s half again as deep. Is that such a bad thing? Thickness is actually a practical advantage in a phone, there’s little chance of cracking this one in your pocket. But such arguments weigh little in the scales of fashion. People have to be slim, therefore our phones have to be slim too – that seems to be about all the logic there is to it.

An even more damaging shortfall though was the strange absence of multitouch. Perhaps Nokia had too little experience with the necessary screen technology, but launching the N900 without a modern interface was like naming a ship “Abandon”. A resistive screen with a stylus for tapping little icons was an interface from obsolescent Windows Mobile and historic Palm devices. Nobody wanted one now.

Nobody, except a few freaks such as myself. Resistive is far better suited to drawing than the capacitive type of screen used for multitouch. Capacitive requires a large contact area with the surface, making precise detail impossible. Plus it lacks any dimension of pressure sensitivity, while resistive screens can be highly responsive to changes in the pen press.

Combined with pressure-aware Linux drawing applications like MyPaint, this ‘outdated’ resistive interface allowed realistic pen-like or brush-like drawing strokes. This made the N900 the best phone ever created for art,¹ a powerful but sensitive digital sketchbook you could carry in a pocket. Many of the cartoons appearing on this blog were done with it – pencilled, inked, coloured, lettered and uploaded without ever seeing paper or PC. You can even edit images with GIMP, a program with capabilities comparable to the full desktop version of Adobe Photoshop.

But the very thing that most endeared it to me was a huge turn-off to the wider public.

English: Nokia N900 communicator/internet tabl...
Looks better this way

Then there was the lack of apps. As Apple were first to realise, shopping is part of the experience now. A phone is nothing without stuff you can buy for it. There are some very good apps available for Maemo – but almost none to buy. Its Open Source Software roots meant that people were keen to contribute useful stuff. With a little tweaking it could even run apps built for desktop Linux. But that actually worked against a market for the Maemo platform. Professional app developers were discouraged by having to compete with free.

And this cultural clash, Open Source on one hand and commerce on the other, created other unforeseen problems. If you’ve got an issue with a community-developed program, to whom do you complain?

You don’t. In the cooperative world of OSS you file a bug report, documenting the issue and the circumstances that produce it. Which is lovely, but customers who’ve paid money for a fancy phone hardly expect to have to help out as well.

English: The Nokia N900 showing system informa...
Terminal: Fatal

Nor do they expect tech support that tells them to open a terminal window and enter Linux commands. That isn’t actually as intimidating as it might sound, but “Buy this and soon you’ll be learning Linux” is not the sort of slogan that say Apple would use. Or indeed anyone who wanted to sell anything.

And yet… It was so damn promising. If they had moved quicker to smooth off the edges of Maemo, if something like the N9 had arrived a year earlier – while people were still actually waiting for it – it might have been a hit instead of a peculiar footnote². Instead, Nokia paid brutally for not getting their collective arse in gear.

But, it was a remarkable achievement and a fascinating experiment. Even when it’s no longer my primary phone I’ll keep the N900 around, especially for travel, as an incredibly miniaturised PC. They can be picked up new on Ebay for under $200 now, I recommend them highly.

 

___________________________________________________________________

  1. Though Samsung were later to make the impossible dream come true by putting an actual Wacom digitizer on a phone.
  2. A footnote to the footnote: There are rumours that Nokia have quietly continued their Linux-based development – just not for smartphones. Dubbed Meltemi, a descendent of Maemo is rumoured to be the future replacement for the S40 “dumbphone” system that has done so well for them for so long, and could be used to bring smartphone-like features to low-cost devices. That might prove competitive against the rising tide of (frequently awful) cut-price Androids. A sad end for the noble Maemo maybe, but it could save Nokia’s bacon – and of course make them less dependent on Microsoft. Who’s to say that a Linux smartphone will not rise again?

What Phone Was Right For Me?

Tricky lighting led to overexposure and noise in the dark areas – soon corrected by The GIMP

All the time I’ve been writing articles under the heading “What Phone Is Right For You?“, I have never confessed to what I actually use myself. Do I favour the Apple or the Blackberry, Windows or Androids?

None of the above. There was a reason I didn’t bring my own choice into it – the phone that’s right for me probably isn’t right for you. Or most anyone, it seems. Don’t get me wrong, it is an extraordinary piece of kit. But it sold in the hundreds of thousands at best, rather than the millions a hit mobile device needs.

Which is a shame, because it could have been the future.

That device is the Nokia N900 – less a phone really than a tiny PC with phone capabilities. Of course that can be said loosely of any smartphone, but it’s true of the N900 in spades. On this one you can have an actual desktop, and edit office-standard documents in powerful applications. Not bad for something you can carry around in your pocket.

Nokia achieved this with the help of the Open Source Software community – people who create free programs because they believe information technology should be free. Or just for the hell of it. OSS has brought us many great things, famously the Firefox browser of course, but also the free alternative to Windows and Mac OS called Linux.

The N900’s “Maemo” operating system is, like Ubuntu, based on the respected Debian¹ variant of Linux, so installing full-scale desktop applications is relatively straightforward. One great example: The GIMP², an Open Source alternative to Photoshop with all the image-editing power you could want. Thanks to this I was able to take, correct and upload the image above entirely on the phone.

And the usefulness only begins there. By hooking up a mouse and keyboard and using the TV-out as a monitor, I can have a desktop PC in any hotel room. Or indeed I can use the phone itself as a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard to control a PC from bed – which came in darn useful when I was ill – or control TVs and so on with its infra-red output. It’s versatility is matchless. Furthermore it excels as a media player, with powerful stereo speakers and a screen that wasn’t surpassed until the iPhone 4 came out.

English: Nokia N900 communicator/internet tabl...
The N900 with its keyboard open

Its greatest strength though has to be its browser. Nokia had been making specialised “Internet tablets”, portable Web browsing devices, as a semi-experimental sideline since 2005. The N900 just took that and added phone call abilities. Its browser therefore is proper Firefox, just with a finger-friendly interface, and brooks no ‘mobile view’ nonsense. It displays Web pages exactly as they’d appear on a desktop. With Flash, of course.

And though the phone aspect is a late addition, its integration is exemplary. Skype is just there – you can make and receive VoIP calls just as easily as ordinary ones. Similarly, IM services like Facebook and Google Chat integrate seamlessly with the phone’s text messaging. Contacts on different social networks can be merged into a single address book entry too. That’s just the way it should be.

So, what the hell went wrong? If this was such a paragon of smartphone virtue, why did no one buy it? Hopefully I’ll have the strength to face that sorry tale tomorrow.

  1. Poignant little story – Debian was named for its creator, Ian, and his girlfriend Deb – before they broke up. He’s going to have a hard time forgetting her now.
  2. The GIMP stands for The GNU2 Image Manipulation Package.
  3. GNU stands for GNU Is Not UNIX3. Recursive acronyms are kind of an OSS in-joke.
  4. Surprisingly, UNIX doesn’t stand for anything.